Best Buddies: Superintendents and Mayors Are No Longer Adversaries. These Days, Especially in Urban Districts, Many of Them Work Together to Make Their Schools-And City-Better

By Silverman, Fran | District Administration, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Best Buddies: Superintendents and Mayors Are No Longer Adversaries. These Days, Especially in Urban Districts, Many of Them Work Together to Make Their Schools-And City-Better


Silverman, Fran, District Administration


They have a lot in common. They have constituents. They struggle with budgets. They grapple with transportation problems. They have to manage big staffs and human relation issues. And they both have governing boards they have to work with to formulate policy. They are superintendents and mayors. And educators say that now more than ever, these top chief executives have to work together or neither will thrive.

In the past, mayors ran their end of government and superintendents ran the schools. Sometimes they interacted. Sometimes they didn't. Often, they found themselves on different sides of complicated political and financial issues. But with increased federal pressure on schools to perform, and cities struggling to revitalize, mayors and superintendents say they are increasingly realizing that their success often depends on their cooperation.

In some cities mayors are appointing school boards and superintendents. In other areas, mayors are becoming members of school boards. And even in small rural districts, superintendents say they are checking in with their counterparts in their towns or counties more often than in the past.

"The relationship has really changed a lot over the last 10 years. It used to be defined by indifference; the two sides really not paying much attention to one another because they moved in different orbits and worried about their own issues pretty much to the exclusion of each other's challenges," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "But over the years the relationship has changed to one of more collaboration and cooperation. I think people finally realized that they need each other."

It almost seems obvious. Mayors need strong school systems to attract residents and businesses to their communities. Superintendents need the help of mayors to build schools, provide affordable housing to attract teachers to the district and even provide services like police and security. In some areas, schools are dependent upon city approval of the education budget.

But instead of supporting each other, mayors and superintendents can be pitted against each other in politically charged environments rife with opportunities to lob criticisms and blame.

If a mayor has some control over a school district budget, school leaders can argue that budget cuts caused lower test scores or overcrowded classrooms. If a mayor doesn't have any connection to a school system, he or she can blame school leaders for failing to improve the schools and hurting the city's economic prospects. Sometimes, mayor-superintendent relationships fray under turf battles and power struggles.

"Superintendents tend to have egos and so do mayors," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "So sometimes the this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us mentality becomes a problem."

But many educators and politicians are saying that mentality just isn't working any more. And there are so many areas where school interests and city responsibilities overlap. These include affordable housing, public transportation, bonding, economic development, social support services, health issues and safety.

"The relationship has become a necessity," says Casserly.

In some areas the changes have been drastic with mayors being given direct control over education budgets and the hiring of major school staff. In other areas, the changes are more subtle, with superintendents intentionally serving on committees with mayors and mayors appointing executive staff members to act as liaisons to education departments.

SITTING IN

In Stamford, Conn., a school district with a $200 million budget and 145,000 students, voters approved a referendum last November giving Mayor Dannel P. Malloy a non-voting seat on the elected school board. He not only participates in school board discussions, but also can make motions and attend executive sessions.

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